Lamb, Caroline (1785–1828)
Lamb, Caroline (1785–1828)
English aristocrat, poet and novelist, best known for her tempestuous affair with the poet Lord Byron. Name variations: Caroline Ponsonby; Lady Melbourne; Lady Caroline Lamb; (nickname) Caro. Born Caroline Ponsonby in England in 1785; died in January 1828 at Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire, England; only daughter of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd earl of Bessborough, and Lady Henrietta Frances Spencer, countess of Bessborough; married William Lamb (1779–1848), later 2nd Lord Melbourne as well as prime minister (1834, 1835–41), in 1805; children: one son Augustus (1807–1836); daughter (b. 1809, died at birth).
Born into a wealthy and aristocratic English family; spent several years in Europe as a child, absorbing European culture; as a young girl, was a member of the "Devonshire House set," a group of rich and intelligent aristocrats based at the London home of her aunt, the duchess of Devonshire; married William Lamb, the future prime minister of England (1805); embarked on a tempestuous affair, which lasted only a few months but defined the rest of her life, with the young poet Lord Byron, then at the height of his fame and popularity (1812); as well as poetry, wrote three novels of which only the first, Glenarvon, based on her romance with Byron, was successful; spent the last decade of her life in isolation at her country house because of the scandal provoked by her affair and by the novel; died there at age 42.
Glenarvon (London, 1816); Graham Hamilton (London, 1822); Ada Reis (London, 1823).
George Gordon, 6th Lord Byron, was the sensation of the 1812 London season; his poem, Childe Harold, had appeared in March and had been an instant and spectacular success. Every hostess in England conspired to lure the handsome young aristocrat to her social gatherings. Lady Caroline Lamb had already fallen in love with his poetry. Tired of country life and growing bored with her seven-year marriage, she was determined to meet this dazzling new literary star. Within days of his first appearance in London, she got her wish, but when Byron was brought forward to meet her, Caroline gazed into his face for a moment before turning her back and walking away without a word. That night, she recorded her impressions in her diary: "Bad, mad and dangerous to know."
Caroline Ponsonby was born in England in 1785, the only daughter of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd earl of Bessborough, and Lady Henrietta Frances Spencer , countess of Bessborough. She was brought up as part of the "Devonshire House set," an aristocratic household devoted to pleasure and not at all concerned with conventional ideas about marital fidelity. The household was directed by Lady Elizabeth Foster (later Elizabeth Cavendish ), the duke of Devonshire's mistress, and Georgiana Cavendish , the duchess of Devonshire, sister of Henrietta Frances Spencer, and aunt to Caroline. Henrietta and Georgiana, extremely close sisters, were renowned for their beauty and intelligence; both read French, Italian, Latin and Greek. Caroline, the only daughter in a family with three sons, "grew up in an atmosphere totally free from restraint, backed by an exceptional artistic and literary erudition," and admired and indulged by her wealthy parents and relatives.
When Caroline was five, Lady Bessborough took her daughter and her younger son to live in Italy; she soon reported that it "is quite surprising to hear how well and fluently she reads and speaks both French and Italian." They were to remain in Italy for almost three years. Caroline kept a pet fox and wandered after the sheep in the hills. In later life, she liked to spin tales of the wildness and neglect of those years, saying that she had lived as "an idle, wandering unruly boy." Her claim that she could not write until she was ten years old was an invention, but it was true that her mother took greater pains to expose Caroline to European art and literature than to instill more traditional skills such as spelling or punctuation. As Margot Strickland observes, Caroline's letters throughout her life "ran breathlessly on from subject to subject, devoid of commas or paragraphs."
At age 14, Caroline was confirmed in Westminster Abbey, and it was at about this time that William Lamb first saw her. He was 21, had just finished his studies at Cambridge University, and was about to spend a further two winters studying philosophy in Glasgow. William is said to have remarked that, of all the Devonshire House girls, Caroline was the one for him. First impressions were confirmed when he met her again three years later. The young woman who made her debut into London society at the age of 17 had changed little; with a slender, boyish figure, short curly hair and a voice which, in Devonshire House style, elongated vowels in a rather childlike way, she was nicknamed "the Sprite" and "Ariel." Her sheer energy and intensity proved an immediate attraction for the rather indolent and cynical William Lamb. Learned, but unengaged by his studies, William recognized Caroline's spontaneous, unconventional intelligence and saw what Strickland calls "a creative individuality, whimsical, extravagant, enchanting."
Only the unexpected death of William's older brother in 1805 made marriage a possibility; Caroline's lineage was too aristocratic for her to be permitted to marry the younger son of an only recently titled family which had made its fortune in money lending. Once William became his father's heir, and thus the next in line to the title of Baron Melbourne, Caroline's family was, somewhat reluctantly, ready to accept him as a suitor. Her young cousin Hart, the future duke of Devonshire, was heartbroken; he never married and remained Caroline's close friend for the rest of her life. However, it was clear that the strong-willed Caroline had fallen in love, and Lady Bessborough was hopeful that marriage would serve as a steadying and calming influence on her mercurial, highly strung daughter. "Caroline Ponsonby is to be married tomorrow" recorded Lady Elizabeth Foster in 1805; "she looks prettier than ever I saw her. Sometimes she is very nervous…. Wm. Lamb seems quite de voted to her." Moods of tearful uncertainty before her wedding gave way to a major scene during the ceremony itself; Caroline, enraged by the behavior of the officiating bishop, tore her wedding gown and had to be carried, fainting, from the room.
One of the most fashionable young couples in London, the Lambs divided their time between their London apartment in Marlborough House and their country estate, Brocket Hall. After a visit to the newlyweds, Lady Elizabeth Foster reported that Caroline "is the same wild, delicate, odd delightful person" and that Caroline and William "flirt all day." William was calmly determined to take charge of his "dearest love." Strickland suggests that "William's vanity was gratified by his capture of an equally adoring pupil-wife, an enchantingly fey sprite who regarded him as a hero rather than a husband." He set about providing his wife with the formal education she had never received, and the two read history, poetry and theology together. Trying to find some context for the classical history which William was currently teaching her, Caroline wrote to her mother in July 1809: "I should take it as a great favour if you would just write me the principal dates and events, wars, risings etc. from Romulus till the time of Constantine the Great—if you are unwell do not do it."
Caroline had suffered some periods of illness herself; a miscarriage early in the marriage had been followed by the birth of her sickly son Augustus in 1807, and a further pregnancy in 1809 produced a daughter who died within hours. She seemed to recover quickly each time and continued to work hard at her studies, although it was clear that her initial enthusiasm was fading; learning Greek under William's direction during the spring of 1808, she observed rather pointedly in a letter to her mother: "I am convinced nothing is worse … than finding fault, unless it be for things one can help."
Spencer, Henrietta Frances (1761–1821)
Countess of Bessborough. Name variations: Lady Bessborough; Viscountess Duncannon; Henrietta Frances Ponsonby. Born Henrietta Frances Spencer on June 16, 1761; died on November 1, 1821; daughter of John Spencer, 1st earl Spencer, and Georgiana (Poyntz) Spencer (eldest daughter of Stephen Poyntz); sister of Georgiana Cavendish (1757–1806); married Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd earl of Bessborough, on November 27, 1780; children: John Ponsonby, 4th earl of Bessborough; Major-General Sir Frederick Ponsonby; Caroline Lamb (1785–1828); William Ponsonby, 1st Lord De Mauley.
Cavendish, Elizabeth (1759–1824)
Duchess of Devonshire. Name variations: Lady Elizabeth Foster; Dearest Bess. Born in 1759; died in 1824; daughter of Rt. Reverend Frederick Augustus, bishop of Derry and 4th earl of Bristol (1730–1803), and Elizabeth Davers; married John Thomas Foster (died 1796); married Edmund Gibbon, in 1787; married William Cavendish, 5th duke of Devonshire, on October 19, 1809; children: (first marriage) Frederick (b. 1777); Augustus (b. 1780, who married Albinia Hobart ); (with the duke of Devonshire) Caroline St. Jules (b. 1785, who married George Lamb); Augustus Clifford (b. 1788, who married Elizabeth Townshend ).
Born in 1759, the daughter of Elizabeth Davers and Rt. Reverend Frederick Augustus, bishop of Derry and 4th earl of Bristol, Elizabeth Cavendish married John Thomas Foster, Edmund Gibbon, and then William Cavendish, 5th duke of Devonshire. Elizabeth was a close companion of Georgiana Cavendish . While living in Rome, Elizabeth Cavendish subsidized editions of Horace and Virgil.
Calder-Marshall, Arthur. The Two Duchesses. NY: Harper and Row, 1978.
Cavendish, Georgiana (1757–1806)
English social patron and duchess of Devonshire. Name variations: Lady Georgiana Spencer. Born Georgiana Spencer in London, England, on June 7, 1757; died on March 30, 1806; eldest daughter of John Spencer, 1st earl Spencer, and Georgiana (Poyntz) Spencer (eldest daughter of Stephen Poyntz); sister of Henrietta Frances Spencer (1761–1821); married William Cavendish, 5th duke of Devonshire (1748–1811), on June 6, 1774; children: Georgiana Cavendish (b. 1783, later countess of Carlisle); Harriet Cavendish (1785–1862, later Lady Harriet Leveson-Gower) ; William Spencer Cavendish (1790, the marquess of Hartington and later 6th duke of Devonshire, known as "Hart"); (with Charles, 2nd earl Grey) Eliza Courtney (b. 1792 and adopted by 1st earl Grey).
Married at 16 and soon bored, Georgiana Cavendish took to gambling within a year of her reign as hostess of Devonshire House and came under the spell of Charles James Fox. She campaigned for Fox in the Westminster election of 1784. She also took up with Lady Elizabeth Foster (later Elizabeth Cavendish ) "with a school-girl's passion" writes Henry Blyth. Foster, known as "Dearest Bess," was soon a member of the Devonshire household. "When Georgiana fell ill," writes Blyth, "Bess nursed her devotedly whilst she was in bed. In due course she was also invited to attend the Duke when he was in bed, but not for the purpose of administering physick…. Thus there came into existence a ménage à trois which gave everyone satisfaction." A social beauty whose portrait was painted by Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, Georgiana Cavendish was a reigning queen of society. Her friends included Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Dr. Samuel Johnson.
Blyth, Henry. Caro, The Fatal Passion: The Life of Caroline Lamb. NY: Coward-McCann, 1972.
Calder-Marshall, Arthur. The Two Duchesses. NY: Harper and Row, 1978.
Foreman, Amanda. Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire. NY: Random House, 2000.
With William increasingly involved in politics, Caroline often found herself left alone at Brocket, nursing her son Augustus through his frequent bouts of sickness. She was a devoted mother, but she was beginning to feel increasingly isolated and even uncertain about William's love for her. She felt the strain of having to "perform" to rouse his attention and wrote: "His indolence renders him insensible to everything. When I ride, play and amuse him he loves me." William's journal records his perspective: "Before I was married, whenever I saw the children and the dogs allowed … to be troublesome … I used to lay it all to the fault of the master…. Since I have married I find that this was a very rash and premature judgement." Despite his undoubted love for Caroline, he seems to have regarded his wife in much the same way as he would a child or a dog. His attempts to divert her original and creative intelligence into academic directions were failing. Caroline feared his "smothering severity" but usually blamed herself for their quarrels and in one contrite letter promised him: "I will be silent of a morning, docile, fearless as a heroine in the last vol. of her troubles." All instinct and feeling while William was cool rationality, Caroline took wild gallops over the Downs to sublimate her energies. William preferred sedate walks.
She became a passionate reader, finding in literature a refuge and a source of welcome stimulation. Once again, her response was instinctive rather than analytical—she disliked reading reviews because such an approach "tends to extinguish natural taste," and she claimed that critics "instead of feeling with enthusiasm the beauties of a play or a poem, pretend to judge by rule and discover the defects." She greatly admired Mary Wollstonecraft 's Vindication of the Rights of Women and, consciously or not, made her own statement of resistance by continuing to dress in boy's clothes and cutting her hair short. She particularly enjoyed dressing up as a page; her friends called her Cherubina.
It is all very well if one dies at the end of a tragic scene, after playing a desperate part: but if one lives, and instead of growing wiser, one remains the same victim of every folly and passion, without the excuse of youth and inexperience, what then?
In 1810, after five years of an increasingly unsatisfactory marriage, Caroline indulged in a very public affair with Sir Godfrey Webster, hoping to rouse William from his indifference—to no avail. However, both her choice of a man of notoriously shady character and the indiscreet way she conducted herself did serious damage to her reputation. Extramarital liaisons were common among the English aristocracy of the early 19th century, but there were very strict codes about how they should be conducted. Caroline, throwing caution and discretion to the winds, violated those codes, and only her youthful inexperience and elevated position in society saved her from complete social ostracism. After William had finally been stirred enough to remonstrate with her in public, Caroline vowed to reform, but did not keep her promise for long.
William Lamb's biographer, Lord David Cecil, blames Caroline for the growing estrangement between the formerly loving couple: "her character was of a kind to make her an unsatisfactory wife for any man…. [W]ith a glint of the unique fire of genius, she possessed in the highest degree its characteristic defect. A devouring egotism vitiated every element in her character. In her eyes she was the unquestioned centre of the universe." Cecil asserts that she was "abnormally selfish, abnormally uncontrolled and abnormally unreliable" and that "life was a drama in which she was cast as heroine; and both her fellow actors and her audience were expected to applaud her every movement." This harsh judgment is undoubtedly colored by the event which marked the rest of Caroline's life, her affair with Lord Byron.
Caroline was 27 at the time. Byron, a young man of 24 with the world at his feet, besieged by female admirers, was immediately intrigued by the young woman who silently turned her back on him at their first meeting in March 1812. Within a very short time, they had become lovers. Already deeply engaged by his poetry, Caroline found herself swept away by Byron's physical appearance. He was every inch the romantic hero; tall, dark, melancholy, and mysterious, with a lame leg that merely added to his attraction. William's biographer asserts that Caroline "who had been frigid, though carelessly amoral, became tragically carnal." Byron certainly awoke Caroline's fiery sexuality, and she confidently forecast: "That beautiful pale face will be my fate."
Byron's most recent biographer, Phyllis Grosskurth , suggests that he was already a confirmed bisexual and that Caroline's unconventional and androgynous appearance attracted him. She was certainly far from the type of voluptuous, dark-eyed woman he usually preferred—he was later to remark, "I am haunted by a skeleton"—but, regardless of her appearance, Byron seemed incapable of remaining faithful to any one woman for long. Moreover, despite his efforts to present himself as being similar to his Childe Harold hero, cynical and detached from the trifling preoccupations of the world, he cared obsessively about what would now be called his "public image." He called his association with Caroline a "serio-comedy" but it was not long before its tragic elements came to
dominate. Byron discovered that the affair brought him into the public eye in a way that he neither sought nor welcomed.
David Cecil asserts that neither Byron nor Caroline was really in love, but, rather, that they presented "the extraordinary spectacle of a love drama, performed in the most flamboyant, romantic manner by two raging egoists, each of whom was in fact wholly absorbed in self." Byron's published correspondence clearly indicates that he vacillated between his inclination to play the romantic hero and his desire for quieter, less public relationships. Cecil is wrong, however, about Caroline. She had clearly found the love of her life and was willing to sacrifice everything, including herself, to keep him.
The white hot period of their affair lasted little more than four months. Almost from the first Byron was uneasy at the intensity of Caroline's adoration; he wrote sometime in April 1812, shortly after the start of their liaison:
I never knew a woman with greater or more pleasing talents … but these are unfortunately coupled with a total want of common conduct…. Then your heart—my poor Caro, what a little volcano! that pours lava through your veins, & yet I cannot wish it a bit colder…. you know I have always thought you the cleverest most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous fascinating little being that lives now or ought to have lived 2000 years ago.
Within weeks of their first meeting Byron was counseling caution:
people talk as if there were no other pair of absurdities in London…. Our folly has had the effect of a fault—We must make an effort, this dream this delirium of two months must pass away, … a month's absence would make us rational…. But it is better that I should leave town than you…. Now don't abuse me, or think me altered, it is because I am not, cannot alter, that I shall do this, and cease to make fools talk, friends grieve, and the wise pity.
Since Caroline's correspondence, unlike Byron's, has not been published in its entirety, we are compelled to reconstruct her side of the affair from the fragments which appear in the biographies of her husband and her lover and from the accounts of her desperate, love-obsessed behavior. On July 29, she arrived at Byron's rooms dressed as a boy and tried to persuade him to elope with her. He was far from the restrained and rational being which he tried to present himself as in his letters, and was only dissuaded from going with her by the intervention of his best friend at the last minute. On August 9, no doubt sensing that her lover was already tiring of her, she sent him a letter containing some of her pubic hair along with the passionate assertion: "I will kneel and be torn from your feet before I will give you up."
Byron had found an advisor and confidante in Lady Elizabeth Melbourne , William's mother, and wrote to her almost daily when his affair with Caroline was at its height, frequently proclaiming his desire to get free of this demanding entanglement and discussing possible strategies. And yet he would not, could not, sever communication with Caroline. Following a meeting sometime in August 1812, he referred to his tears and agitation "through the whole of this most nervous nervous affair" and told her that "no other in word or deed shall ever hold the place in my affection which is & shall be most sacred to you, till I am nothing." Byron's letter ended with a postscript which is hardly the work of an unwilling love object: "is there anything on earth or heaven would have made me so happy as to have made you mine long ago? … I was and am yours, freely & most entirely, to obey, to honour, love—& fly with you when, where, & how you yourself might & may determine."
William, roused from his indifference and his preoccupation with politics by the public outrageousness of Caroline's behavior, was persuaded to take his wife off to Ireland. Caroline later recorded that he "cared nothing for my morals, I might flirt and go about with whom I pleased. He was privy to my affair with Lord Byron and laughed at it." The culminating incident occurred on August 12. Caroline, rebuked for her scandalous behavior by her father-in-law, Lord Melbourne, ran away and had to be found and taken home by Byron. "I am apprehensive for her personal safety, for her state of mind," Byron had written to Lady Melbourne. Nor was he alone in his concern; according to her cousin Harriet, "She is worn to the bone, as pale as death and her eyes starting out of her head. She seems in a sad way; alternately in tearing spirits and in tears." Caroline, clinging blindly to her relationship with Byron, had become an object of public ridicule.
In September, relieved that Caroline was safely in Ireland, Byron wrote to Lady Melbourne:
You will not regret to hear that I wish this to end, & it certainly shall not be renewed on my part.—It is not that I love another but loving at all is quite out of my way; I am tired of being a fool, & when I look back on the waste of time, & the destruction of all my plans last winter by this last romance, I am—what I ought to have been long ago.
Yet he was still hesitant and uncertain, confiding to Lady Melbourne, "I do not at all know how to deal with her, because she is unlike every one else." To ensure that Caroline would not pursue him upon her return, Byron determined to marry during her absence; he wrote once again to Lady Melbourne: "[A]ll I have left is to take some step which will make her hate me effectually, for she must be in extremes." Casting about for a suitable wife, Byron settled upon Caroline's pious country cousin, Anne Milbanke . For a time, Lady Melbourne, who was also Anne's aunt, served as the go-between in the newly developing relationship. Anne, however, was not to be rushed, and initially refused Byron's proposal. His letters to Lady Melbourne had a distinct tone of panic as he contemplated Caroline's imminent return to London:
I am out of all patience with her & hers & come what may will have no explanations, no scenes, no anything, & if necessary I will quit London or the country altogether rather than subject myself to the renewal of the last years [sic] harass.—The sooner, the stronger—the fuller you state this the better—Good God—am I to be hunted from place to place like a Russian bear or Emperor?
Her stay in Ireland had clearly not cured Caroline of her passion. She appears to have threatened suicide in her letters to Byron, for he informed Lady Melbourne on November 9:
C. threatens to revenge herself upon herself, by all kinds of perverseness.—this is her concern—all I desire is to have nothing more to do with them—no explanations—no interviews—in short I neither can nor will bear it any longer.
Still unmarried, Byron had by November taken refuge with another mistress, the Countess of Oxford , a 40-year-old beauty with a calm temperament, a luxurious country estate and a compliant husband. But Caroline's letters followed him and he complained to his confidante:
Is everyone to be embroiled by C.?—Is she mad or mischievous only? … I must pronounce C. to be the most contradictory, absurd, selfish, & contemptibly wicked of human productions…. I could wish to feel towards her as a friend—but as she herself says she has resolved since she is "not loved to be detested."
Caroline wrote to her former lover and to his new mistress, pleading for mementos: a lock of hair, a picture. Now back in England, she threatened to visit the couple if these were not provided. The cynical Byron sent a lock of Lady Oxford's hair, pretending it was his own. And yet still he could not sever ties completely, and their correspondence continued.
By October, he was adopting a firmer line—"correct yr. vanity which is ridiculous and proverbial, exert your Caprices on your new conquests & leave me in peace, yrs. Byron"—and by December the two had begun to negotiate the return of one another's letters. Caroline was certain that if hers were to be circulated her reputation would be ruined: "She writes menacingly, & at the same time accuses me of menaces—what menaces have I used?—poor little weak thing!" But still the exchanges continued: in mid-December Byron told Lady Melbourne: "Her letters are as usual full of contradictions and less truth (if possible) than ever."
Lady Melbourne suggested that William should keep Caroline at Brocket Hall to allow the scandal to blow over and lessen the chance of an embarrassing confrontation between the erstwhile lovers. Byron commented in a letter of December 21, 1812:
I think your plan with her not so good as yr. general plans are—as long as she is in ye. country & has nothing to do but gallop on the turnpike & scribble absurdities she will be unmanageable.
On this occasion, Byron's instincts were correct; confined to the country, Caroline rode and scribbled and, that winter at Brocket, she dressed a group of young girls in white and had them dance around a bonfire made from presents Byron had sent her, into which she cast copies of his letters while reciting lines she had written for the occasion. He remarked when he learned of it: "I begin to look upon her as actually mad or it would be impossible for me to bear what I have from her already." In addition to forging Byron's signature on a letter to a picture dealer to get possession of his portrait, she dressed her male servants in new livery, their buttons bearing the inscription: "Ne crede Byron"—Do not believe Byron.
Melbourne, Elizabeth (d. 1818)
Viscountess Melbourne. Name variations: Lady Melbourne; Elizabeth Milbanke; Elizabeth Lamb. Born Elizabeth Milbanke; died in the spring of 1818; only daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanke, Bart., of Halnaby, in Yorkshire; married Peniston Lamb, 1st viscount Melbourne; aunt ofAnne Milbanke ; children: four sons, including Peniston (1770–1805); (possibly with Lord Egremont) Henry William Lamb, 2nd viscount Melbourne (1779–1848); (possibly with George IV, king of England) George Milbanke (1784–1834); and Emily Lamb , countess of Cowper.
Along with her importance in the story of Lord Byron, Lady Elizabeth Melbourne was one of the many mistresses of George IV, king of England.
Yet still her passion burned. Convinced that Byron was leaving the country with Lady Oxford in May 1813, she requested a final meeting, and the two had a teary reunion. The pathos of the letter which she wrote the next day must have torn at Byron's heart:
One only word. You have raised me from despair to the joy we look for in Heaven. Your seeing me has undone me for ever—you are the same, you love me still. I am sure of it—your eyes, your looks, your manners, words say so. Oh God, can you give me up if I am so dear? Take me with you—take me, my master, my friend. Who will fight for you, serve you, in sickness and health, live but for your wishes and die when that can please you—who so faithfully as the one you have made yours bound to your heart of hearts? Yet when you read this you will be gone. You will think of me, perhaps, as one who gave you suffering—trouble. Byron, my days are passed in remembering what I once was to you. I wish that you had never known me or that you had killed me before you went. God bless and preserve my friend and master.
But Byron did not leave, and the two were soon involved in another public scene. Accounts vary but are agreed that in July 1813 at Lady Heathcote 's ball, Caroline attempted to provoke Byron's jealousy by asking him if she were now allowed to waltz. He had never liked to see her dancing since his lame leg would not allow him to participate. He is reported as contemptuously telling her she could do as she pleased, at which point she grabbed a knife or broke a glass and used the sharp edge to gash her arms. She was held down before she could do much damage, but there was blood on her dress and the newspapers were soon full of the newest scandal.
The same month, Byron was involved in another scandal that had nothing to do with Caroline. Facing the departure of Lady Oxford for Europe, Byron had asked his half-sister, Augusta Leigh , to come to London to live with him. She was four years older than Byron and had three children and an indifferent husband. All the evidence suggests that the two became lovers; their affectionate behavior that summer was the talk of London. By October, Byron was in pursuit of another beauty but at the same time had renewed his correspondence with Anne Milbanke. In April 1814, Augusta's fourth child, Medora Leigh , probably fathered by Byron, was born. It was clearly time for Byron to marry.
Rumors about his behavior did not diminish Caroline's devotion; during the summer of 1814, she managed to gain entry to Byron's rooms several times. Once, finding a book lying on the table, she wrote "Remember me!" on the first page. Byron's response was a piece of poetic, self-justifying fury:
Remember thee! Ay, doubt it not;
Thy husband too shall think of thee;
By neither shalt thou be forgot,
Thou false to him, thou fiend to me.
Caroline later claimed that Byron received her with a tenderness that these lines and his protesting letters to Lady Melbourne conceal, but that he also showed her letters which destroyed her passion for him. The letters, presumably, revealed the true nature of his relationship with Augusta. It is evident, despite her claim to the contrary, however, that they did no lasting harm to Caroline's feelings for Byron.
On January 2, 1815, Byron married Anne Milbanke. Caroline sent what, at first glance, appear to be warmest congratulations:
God bless you—you may be very happy. I love and honour you from my heart as a friend may love—no wrong I hope—as a sister feels—as your Augusta feels for you.
Caroline's reference to Augusta probably implied carnal feelings rather than sisterly affection. That her blessings were less than heartfelt is made clear by her remark to Byron's publisher that the poet would "never be able to pull with a woman who went to church punctually, understood statistics and had a bad figure." Her prediction was accurate, but it was the woman who first refused to "pull" any longer; in January 1816, Anne took her month-old daughter (see Lovelace, Ada Byron, Countess of ) and left Byron, never to return. The marriage had been a complete disaster. With scandal, rumors, and recriminations incessantly circling about him, in September 1816 Byron left England forever.
Caroline had last seen the man who shaped and shattered her life during the summer of 1815, when she paid a social call to the newlyweds with her aunt, Lady Melbourne. Caroline is said to have sat silently throughout the visit, and Byron, when he joined the group, was horrified to see her. By the following summer, she was working furiously, as Byron had predicted, at "scribbling" her first novel Glenarvon. The work was written at break-neck speed and published two weeks after Byron left England. An overwrought, romantic tale, the novel told their story of love and betrayal, and its characters were barely disguised versions of Caroline, Byron and her friends and relatives who had failed to understand or support her. The work was a bestseller which ran to several editions and was translated into French and German.
While writing the novel no doubt provided welcome catharsis for Caroline, its publication ruined her. She had taken the final step from which neither her noble birth nor her elfin charm could rescue her; she was shunned by society, excluded from respectable houses, ostracized and ignored. William's family pressed him to obtain a legal separation, fearing that his political career would be irreparably damaged. While he resisted, she spent her time at Brocket, writing, sketching and caring devotedly for her son who, it was now evident, was both mildly retarded and epileptic. She claimed not to mind the social exclusion: "If I did not see how anxious William is about it, for myself I should not care if I retired for ever." In 1819, she published a long gloomy poem, portraying the end of the world, which began "I'm sick of fame—I'm gorged with it."
Caroline's usually robust health began to deteriorate under the strain of her isolation. According to Strickland, she "was often ill, distracting herself with wine and unsavoury company, dulling her senses with laudanum." She wrote a second novel, Graham Hamilton, which graphically describes the disturbing effects of the drug laudanum (a solution of opium dissolved in alcohol), then freely available and often taken for trivial ailments such as toothache. Caroline wrote of nightmarish hallucinations: "It was as if my imagination was struck … as if material objects vanished, and the perceptions of the mind became too bright and vivid for the understanding to bear." The novel failed, as did her third attempt at fiction, Ada Reis. While both were imaginative and competent works, they neither contained any sensational gossip nor a Byronic hero and both appeared anonymously, so that the public could not associate them with the fallen star of aristocratic society.
Caroline was deeply discouraged. Her association with Byron had sparked her ambition to write, and she knew that she had ability. She took refuge in frenetic activity, galloping wildly about her Hertfordshire estate. The aspiring poet and admirer Edward Bulwer-Lytton described her at this time—she was now 40—as "a slight rounded figure [with] a childlike mode of wearing her hair, which was of a pale golden colour, in fine curls." She wrote to another friend, William Godwin, the widowed husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, that "Life, after all that has been said of its brevity, is very, very long." In April 1824, Byron died in Greece, and by 1825 the Lamb family was renewing its efforts to persuade William to obtain a legal separation. The family was, by this time, convinced of Caroline's insanity; it is likely that the news of Byron's death accentuated her lifelong tendency to depression and erratic behavior. She wrote to her cousin Hart: "I feel violently. Is that madness?"
Leigh, Augusta (1784–1851)
Influential sister of Lord Byron. Name variations: Augusta Byron; Mrs. George Leigh. Born Augusta Mary Byron in Paris, France, on January 26, 1784; died of cancer on November 27, 1851; daughter of John Byron and Lady Carmarthen (formerly the wife of Francis, Marquis of Carmarthen, and later 5th duke of Leeds); aunt of Ada Byron , countess of Lovelace; married her cousin Colonel George Leigh, in 1807 (died 1850); children: Georgiana Augusta Leigh (b. November 4, 1808); Augusta Charlotte Leigh (b. February 9, 1811); George Henry John Leigh (b. June 3, 1812); Elizabeth Medora Leigh (b. April 15, 1814); Frederick George Leigh (b. May 9, 1816); Amelia Marianne Leigh (b. November 27, 1817); Henry Francis (b. January 28, 1820).
Augusta Leigh was the product of a scandalous liaison between John Byron, known as Mad John, and Lady Carmarthen , who was then married to Francis, marquis of Carmarthen. Divorcing her first husband, Lady Carmarthen was eight months pregnant with Augusta when she married John Byron and fled to Paris. Augusta was born on January 26, 1784, and her mother died in childbirth. John Byron had little use for Augusta, foisting her upbringing off on relatives. But the non-essential Augusta, writes Henry Blyth, would later prove to be the "most important factor in shaping the career of her future half-brother George Gordon Byron."
Lord Byron fell in love with his half-sister, and there was speculation that Augusta's daughter Medora Leigh was the product of an incestuous relationship between the two. It did not help that the name Medora came from Byron's poem The Corsair.
Mackay, Charles. Medora Leigh: A History and Autobiography. 1869.
Turney, Catherine. Byron's Daughter. NY: Scribner, 1972.
After strenuously disputing the terms of her financial settlement, an indication that she was not as deranged as the family claimed, Caroline agreed to leave for France. She lived for several months in a rented room in Calais but was desperately homesick for her son, her country life, and her horses. William relented and allowed her to return to Brocket. Caroline was soon restless again, in failing health but still burning with energy and ambition. She was without any creative outlet: "Action was the light of life. I cannot labour…. [W]ere I to publish what I write, I should only make enemies"; "shall I fret, fret and die?" She confided to her cousin Hart: "I feel too much to live long" and, with the same premonition of impending death, sent a detailed letter to her son. She gently informed Augustus that she wanted him to have some knowledge of the history of England and of current events, to be able to write a decent hand, "and I should like you to know enough of affairs in general to prevent you being in the hands of Ragamuffins … no more … for you should not overload yr memory nor strain yr understanding."
She saw little of William. In 1827, he was appointed chief secretary for Ireland—by 1834 he was to become prime minister of England—and, freed by the terms of his separation from Caroline, William resumed his affair with his former mistress. In October 1827, Caroline's doctor sent news to her husband that she was very ill but "with feelings of perfect resignation says she does not mind to die." In January 1828, William wrote to his mistress, Lady Brandon , that Caroline was dying, observing with his own share of bitterness that "the only bitter feelings which affect her are those which I knew she would suffer … repentance of the course she has run." Her devoted cousin Hart, the duke of Devonshire, spoke more gently, praising the honesty which had played its part in destroying her: "She had a candour."
Caroline's candor allowed her to critically evaluate the romantic obsession which had consumed her life: "Love is what an angel may feel for suffering man … but my feelings were the overbearing violence of passion." She wrote of the "tumult, the ardour, the romance, which bewildered my reason" and "clouded my understanding." In her gloomy poem "A New Canto," she had prophesied that her name would be kept "in capitals, like Kean." She might as well have written "like Byron," for whenever his life is examined, hers is inextricably linked to it. Whatever his feelings for her, Caroline's passion for him was the archetypal romantic obsession, self-negating, all-encompassing, and everlasting. Despite the agony it cost her, Caroline's devotion endured; her lover was always "that dear, that angel, that misguided and misguiding Byron, whom I adore, although he left that dreadful legacy on me, my memory."
sources and suggested reading:
Cecil, Lord David. Melbourne. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971 (first published in Indianapolis by Bobbs-Merrill, 1954).
Grosskurth, Phyllis. Byron: The Flawed Angel. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Marchand, Leslie A. Byron: A Biography. Volume I. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.
——, ed. "Famous in my time"; Byron's Letters and Journals 1810–1812. Vol. 2. London: John Murray, 1973.
Strickland, Margot. The Byron Women. London: Peter Owen, 1974.
(Dr.) Kathleen Garay , Acting Director, Women's Studies Programme, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada